David Corn

How America Became So Divided

The state of the union today is a state of upheaval, said veteran journalist David Corn.

by Joe Cirincione and Zack Brown, originally published in The National Interest. Listen to the whole episode on Press the Button.

The state of the union today is a state of upheaval, said veteran journalist David Corn. We are in the midst of a perfect storm of interlocking crises — a pandemic that has killed one hundred and ten thousand Americans, an economic collapse that threatens tens of millions more, nationwide protests against police brutality and a militarized government response that threatens the legitimacy of our core institutions. 

To Corn, the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones and author of the book Russian Roulette, the attribution is clear. “It’s all centered — unfortunately — on one guy: President Donald Trump.” 

Corn sees the national security impacts as twofold. “One is simply policy,” he said in an interview with Joe Cirincione on the Press The Button podcast. “One can argue whether a policy is right or wrong for the country, whether it enhances our national security or diminishes it. So ripping up the Iran deal, ripping up nuclear arms treaties - all that is troublesome, but it’s the type of arguments and policy disputes that [Democrats] would have with most Republicans in the White House. It’s not unusual in that regard.” 

What is unusual, Corn explained, is what might be called the “Trump factor” — the compulsive, instinctively confrontational style of a president very much enamored of his own abilities.  “What is more of a risk to the country is his incompetence and ignorance when it comes to a lot of issues. This is a guy who just believes that you don't need to know anything."

Take the coronavirus pandemic — what Corn believes is “the biggest threat we have faced in decades.” Trump “thought he could bluster his way through the crisis; he didn’t recognize it as a true threat to the country,” he explained. Or, if he did, “he believed that somehow closing your eyes and engaging in magical thinking is the way to confront it.” 

More recently, Trump’s harsh reaction to the widespread protests following the death of George Floyd threatens core American values. “He looks at the military not as an institution to implement policy, but as his own private praetorian guard. That’s dangerous. It is putting a lot of pressure on the bond between the military and the citizenry,” said Corn, echoing a sentiment expressed last week by Trump’s former defense secretary, General James Mattis.

But while Corn excoriated Trump’s handling of these current crises, he was quick to caution against laying all of the national blame at the doorstep of the White House. Decades of institutional backroom dealing, campaign contributions and loose lobbying regulations — what Trump famously called “the swamp” - is a real phenomenon in Washington, and has at times worked to shore up the status quo against even modest reform in everything from defense spending to the price of pharmaceuticals

“In a lot of ways, we lived in a house with a lot of problems before Trump came along and set it on fire,” said Corn. “So, we have to put out the fire before we go back in and say, ‘Oh, there’s rot in the foundation. There’s mold in the walls. There are roaches in the kitchen.’” 

The solution to these systemic issues isn’t likely to come with the end of the Trump presidency, even if Joe Biden wins the election in November, warned Corn. Breathtakingly high levels of polarization mean that a party without control of the White House and both houses of Congress can expect to be faced with “a tremendous amount of political chaos and turmoil” all the way up to “somewhat of a political civil war.”  

Instead of framing this fight as one between Republicans and Democrats, Corn believes that the current moment calls on Americans to reevaluate the entire system that has undergirded and shaped both parties for decades. “We’re not in a right-left moment. We’re in a moment where we are talking about reality versus propaganda; decency versus demagoguery,” he said. “Fundamentally, America is neither left nor right. It’s not a set of policies; it’s a set of values.” 

“If you talk about economic justice, you’re talking about how we collect and use our tax dollars,” Corn explained. “That is the space we look at. What is the state of our public health system? What is the state of our education system? What is the state of the inner cities? What is the state of rural America?” 

Everyday Americans need to ask if “we are using our resources wisely. And the answer is no - we’re overemphasizing the military budget and we are underemphasizing health, education, welfare, infrastructure, the climate,” said Corn. “We need to put more money into communities that feel they don’t have a lot of buy-in with American society and have anger that is justified.” 

This national self-reflection will not be easy, Corn admitted. Wider discussions about systemic problems — most of all racism — tend to be uncomfortable, as they can “confirm for a lot of people that we aren’t as great as we think we are, that we aren’t being made great again because we weren’t that great before.” 

But, Corn said, the promise of America, however unrealized, makes the effort worth it. And no matter which political outcome is realized this November, “everyone is going to have to take a moment or two, relax, and then say, ‘OK, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done.’” 

You can listen to the rest of the interview with journalist David Corn here on Press The Button

Joe Cirincione is the president and Zack Brown a policy associate at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.